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The Hukilau: A legacy of Laie

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First in a series

LAIE, Hawaii — Roland Maiola Logan Kalili finds a long stick to steady his gait as he walks barefoot across the sand toward the beach. The 72-year-old goes by the nickname Ahi, which means "fire" in Hawaiian.

Today the fire is also in his knee. "Old football injury," says the former college and semi-pro player, still moving slowly but steadily toward the beach. "It started bothering me a week or so ago."

Football players are a common export here. But before Ahi became part of a legacy of Polynesian athletes, he was part of another legacy born near Oahu's north shore: the Hukilau.

The Hukilau was an expansive luau organized by members of the Laie Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a way of raising money to rebuild their chapel, which burned to the ground in 1940.

The word "Hukilau" literally describes the process of pulling (huki) the ropes from fishing nets, woven with leaves (lau) along the outside, in from the sea.

Laie is a good hour's drive from Honolulu today, and was even more remote in the 1940s, so it didn't see that many visitors then. But some of those who did come — many of them servicemen — would stop and watch men fish at a beach just off the highway, offering to pay if they could help pull the large nets from the ocean.

Laie's children, Ahi among them, earned money from the tourists by selling coconuts or diving for lobsters. One boy dove for nickels the tourists would toss into the water. Now much older, like Ahi, he is known as "Uncle Five Cent."

The beach where Ahi stands is now boldly named Hukilau Beach and was the scene for those spontaneous tourist-attracting events and the stage for what was organized into the Hukilau.

The story of the chapel fire is one that Laie native Kekela (Kela) Miller's generation knows well: The chapel had been built in 1881 and was later moved to give the new Mormon temple prominence on a slight hillside not far from the ocean. An oil lamp may have started the blaze that destroyed the chapel in 1940.

"There were no fire trucks. You could see it burning for miles," Kela said.

"It made a glow that lit up the sky for miles," added Gladys Pualoa-Ahuna, Ahi's cousin who, at 82, is respectfully known in Laie as "Auntie Gladys."

A church social hall built in 1913 would serve as a chapel while Laie's Mormons rode out World War II. In January 1948, the Laie Ward was anxious to rebuild the chapel and launched the Hukilau to raise money.

Tickets were printed and left with tour groups in Honolulu to lure them to the windward side of the island. In Laie, dancers by the highway let passers-by know there was something to stop and see.

The Hukilau had a grand launch. "More than 1,000 came to the first luau. Relief Society mothers came in to cook; the youth did the serving and then danced," Gladys said. Ticket sales were reported to the Relief Society so the women knew how much food to prepare for the luau. "We came in the morning to set up and came back to serve the meal, then would go and dance."

"The Hukilau became a grand luau," Ahi said, and was put on sometimes twice a month.

Recently at the Hukilau Cafe, not far from the beach, Hukilau veterans sang while playing guitars and the ukulele as they told their stories of the luau's season of prominence.

"Anytime there's a chance to talk about the Hukilau, we're ready," said Ipolani Thompson, who began describing her feelings about the Hukilau by opening a well-worn copy of the Doctrine and Covenants and reading Section 136, verse 28: "If thou art merry, praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing, and with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving."

"This is always what the Hukilau meant to me," Ipolani said. "It was a place of refreshment. You could go (to the beach) with a down heart and leave there with a big smile," she said. " Things in our homes could sometimes be very dramatic. But you could always find peace at the Hukilau."

Popular songwriter Jack Owens visited the event early on and wrote and released the "Hukilau Song" in 1948. It was popular on the mainland and recorded by several notable artists later. It goes like this:

What a beautiful day for fishing,

The old Hawaiian way

And the hukilau nets were swishing

Down at old Laie Bay.

Oh, we're going to a hukilau.

The huki, huki, huki, huki, hukilau.

Everybody loves the hukilau.

Where the laulau is the kaukau

At the big luau.

We throw our nets

Out into the sea

And all the 'ama'ama

Come swimming to me.

Oh, we're going, to a hukilau.

A huki, huki, huki

Huki, huki, huki, hukilau.

The Hukilau also played into the origin of a familiar gesture ubiquitous to Hawaii and Hawaiians.

Hamana Kalili was a community leader who served as an LDS bishop and stake president. He portrayed Hawaiian King Kamehameha in the early Hukilau program. An industrial accident at the nearby sugar cane mill left him without the three middle fingers on his right hand, so when he would wave he had only a thumb and little finger extended. His wave became known as the shaka, also known as the "Hang Loose" wave.

Like many from his generation, Ahi and his parents were part of the Hukilau from the very beginning. But the event continued long after the new chapel was built.

The Hukilau idea grew into a more permanent and much larger tourist attraction, the Polynesian Cultural Center, and the Hukilau performers migrated to the PCC. Kela just retired from teaching the hula, her students still performing at the PCC. Both of Ahi's parents worked for the PCC. "Mom didn't retire until age 85."

A significant portion of the Laie community is involved with the PCC today. Still, the impact of the Hukilau is often felt indirectly. "My daughters grew up at the Hukilau. My grandchildren don't know a thing about it," Gladys said.

Next week: The transition from the Hukilau to the Polynesian Cultural Center in the early 1960s was accomplished with the help of labor missionaries who came to Hawaii from throughout the Pacific islands.

E-mail: sfidel@desnews.com